It took a teenager dying for Minnesota's Hennepin County to cut ties with the for-profit company that provided treatment to some of its most troubled kids.
Last month, after receiving reports of worrying conditions for years, Hennepin County officials removed all children they had placed in out-of-state facilities operated by Sequel Youth and Family Services, which runs residential treatment centers and related programs in 20 states, though none in Minnesota.
The move came after the death of a 16-year-old Michigan boy named Cornelius Frederick, who was a resident of Sequel's Lakeside Academy in Kalamazoo. Employees at the facility restrained Frederick on April 29, reportedly for throwing a sandwich. The boy lost consciousness and died two days later. He also tested positive for Covid-19, one of 41 youth and 13 staff at the facility who were later found to have contracted the virus.
Michigan officials released the results of an investigation on Thursday that found "multiple staff participated in this restraint and several were observed on the video with their weight on [Frederick's] chest, abdomen and legs, making this an unsafe and excessive restraint." The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, which had already pulled its youth from the facility, took steps this week to formally revoke Lakeside Academy's license.
Beginning in 2017, Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis, sent dozens of children to Sequel facilities in Iowa and Michigan, including Lakeside Academy, more than 500 miles away. The kids sent out of state typically had a history of assaulting staff or other residents at facilities in Minnesota that made them difficult to place.
Frederick's death wasn't the first time that troubling conditions at Lakeside and other Sequel facilities had been made public.
Last year, APM Reports published a story on Hennepin's relationship with Sequel and highlighted the large number of 911 calls from Lakeside for serious matters, including alleged child abuse and neglect, criminal sexual conduct, and assault.
The story also noted a 2018 state licensing inspection that concluded: "Overall, reports from both staff and residents support the lack of appropriate staff supervision and interactions with residents. Reports support that staff are not following the policies and procedure for appropriate interactions with residents as outlined in the facilities guidelines for staff. As such, staff are demonstrating an inability to perform the functions of their job as they all know the requirements and yet do not follow them."
Hennepin County quality assurance manager Alyssa Benson told APM Reports at the time that she hadn't seen that report. She said the county had worked with Lakeside to reduce turnover among its case managers by boosting their pay and discussed improvements to staff training. In an email the day the story ran, she told colleagues she had "no current concerns" about Lakeside Academy.
But just months earlier, Benson's emails, obtained through a public records request, show she had received a troubling report about the facility: "We have significant concerns about a youth we have placed at Lakeside," she wrote in an email to colleagues in May of last year.
Earlier that month, the county had received a report of "alleged staff maltreatment, improper/frequent restraints, inappropriate language, bullying and provoking residents," according to its log of incident reports. The county followed up with Michigan authorities, concluding "some staff may have 'old school' attitudes and approaches that are not appropriate and additional training is needed," according to the log.
"[T]here continues to be a pattern of concerns reported from our MN youth about the lack of professionalism and respectful interactions with some staff at Lakeside," county contract specialist LeAnne Tieman wrote in an email to Lakeside vice president Steve Laidacker later that month. They arranged for county staff to participate in a training with Lakeside employees.
And it wasn't the first time that Hennepin County officials had raised concerns about a Sequel facility. Less than a year earlier, in June 2018, the county had removed all the children it had sent to Clarinda Academy in southwest Iowa. County officials explained that decision to APM Reports by stating only that the facility wasn't meeting its "safety and well-being requirements for clients." The county hasn't fulfilled a legal request filed nine months ago for records documenting that decision.
Between January 2016 and the end of September 2019, Hennepin County paid Sequel-run facilities more than $2 million to provide treatment to its youth. The county says it removed kids from another Sequel facility, Iowa's Woodward Academy, at the same time it pulled them from Lakeside in May. It no longer sends any youth to Sequel facilities.
Activists from a coalition of groups representing young people of color called on the county on Thursday to go even further. In a press conference outside the Hennepin County Government Center, representatives from the NAACP Minneapolis, the Hennepin County Public Defender's Office and other groups demanded the county stop sending kids to residential facilities, especially those in other states.
"We should keep our children here," said Elizer Darris, an organizer with ACLU Minnesota. "We need to end the practice immediately of sending our boys and sending our girls to far-flung states, where they're maltreated and where they are in fact being killed."
Data from the state of Minnesota shows the number of kids sent to other states for treatment has increased in recent years, a practice widely viewed as a last resort.
In a statement, spokesman Jon Collins wrote that Hennepin County shared the concerns about sending kids out of state, "which is why we continually evaluate our services to find opportunities for system enhancements, improvements and reforms. For that reason, we welcome all ideas from these groups and others."
Sequel released a statement saying it understood the county's decision to stop sending kids to Lakeside. The company said it was strengthening its oversight of restraints, with a goal of reducing and eventually eliminating them.
"There is no question Cornelius should be with us today," the statement read. "We are committed to doing whatever [is] necessary to ensure this does not happen again on our watch, in our programs. We will not tolerate the misuse of restraints in any situation for any child in our care."
Hennepin County turned to Sequel after removing its kids from Mesabi Academy in the northern Minnesota town of Buhl. That move came after a series of stories from APM Reports exposed a history of maltreatment allegations at the facility. Mesabi closed in 2016.
Sequel then filled an important need for the county. It took kids who had a history of assaults — making many treatment options closer to home refuse to accept them.
"Sad but true," Hennepin County social worker Sherry Aadland wrote to a colleague after APM Reports' story aired last year highlighting the rising numbers of children sent out of state. "We don't have what we need here."
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